How Five Minnesota Educators are Bringing NASA into Their Classrooms

Experiential learning and project-based learning are methods oft praised by teachers when it comes to creating lesson plans or poring over various curricula for their students. But these philosophies aren’t solely beneficial for students in the classroom—they’re also for teachers themselves.

Enter NASA’s new Microgravity University, a program hosted out of the Johnson Space Center in Houston that aims to offer educators and undergraduate students the opportunity to “conduct science, engineering, mathematical and technological experiments in a simulated microgravity environment or on a research-based platform that includes NASA unique testing facilities and aircraft.” The program currently has two arms—the Micro-g NExT program aimed at undergraduate college students and the Microgravity University for Educators (MGuE). Educator teams participating in the MGuE were challenged to puzzle through a technical problem or look for improvements in current solutions identified by NASA scientists and engineers. Classroom teachers and their students submitted Satellite Launching Experimental Devices (SLEDs) for testing at Johnson Space Center’s Space Vehicle Mock-Up Facility.

Of the 60 educators chosen to participate in the program in April, Minnesota was represented by Emily Dauk, a math teacher from Mankato East High School; Ted Siefkes from Scott Highlands Middle School in Apple Valley; and French teacher Caroline Little, physics teacher Mark Westlake, and math teacher Kara Ehlert, all from Saint Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights. A group of 45 high-school sophomores from Saint Thomas Academy took on the challenge of collaboratively designing and building a SLED. Ultimately, the goal of the project was to simulate the launch of a satellite with a payload (an air hockey disk, in this case) toward a designated target (a space station). For an article by, Little explained to staff writer Hannah Burlingame that “there were three design parameters for the SLED students had to keep in mind: the disc must always be shot straight, the disc must leave the launcher at the same speed, and the design must be simple.”

Kara Ehlert and Emily Dauk hold the SLED device

Minnesota teachers Kara Ehlert (left) and Emily Dauk hold the experimental SLED device. NASA

So how did our Minnesota team’s design fare?

“The device our students engineered was simple yet effective,” explained Ehlert, “The one adjustment we needed to make when we were testing the SLED on the PABF [precision air-bearing floor] was that our SLED needed more force! We followed the design specifications given to us, but because the arm was moving at a greater velocity than we were told, we needed to adjust to the actual testing conditions.

“The two hours we spent testing our SLED were a lot of fun, but also nerve wracking . . . we were so close to making it during that time, but any adjustment we made wasn’t quite right. On our second day testing we added an extra spring to provide more force and we were able to finally make it in the target!”

Aside from constructing and testing the SLED, the educators got the opportunity to meet with astronaut Ricky Arnold, learn about current and future NASA projects, and gain deeper understandings of countless practical and real-world applications of math and science to bring back into the classroom. “I have been able to incorporate more direct applications into my classes,” Dauk explained to Twin Cities Geek. “Most of my extension will come next year as I add different applications to the courses I will be teaching.”

She is eager to explore practical mathematical applications with her future classes. “I have constantly been searching for ways to incorporate real-world contexts into high school algebra and geometry and you truly hit the jackpot when you start using NASA resources,” she said. “We can talk about how planetary orbits are elliptically shaped [or] how astronauts actually float on Earth during training thanks to a plane that flies in parabolic flight paths that allow humans to float for about 20 to 30 seconds. We can talk about the sheer cost of launching something into space, we can talk about the many variables that come into play when designing a space suit. The list goes on and on!”

Ehlert found her experience to be a source for deeper conversation and enrichment in her classroom: “When we returned from this experience, I was able start a lot of great conversations with my students about the projects NASA is currently working on. My students are still in awe at how there are humans actually living on the ISS. We all take gravity for granted, and it is amazing to watch their faces as they realize how much actually gets affected when the force of gravity changes!”

In teaching French, Little has found countless ways to integrate STEM into her classroom and encourage students to take an integrated approach to thinking across the spectrum of subjects and curricula.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this experience will leave a lasting imprint on all of the teachers involved. Each of them left feeling excited about Earth’s role in exploring the cosmos, their own futures as educators, and the potential to inspire students to discover passions they may not have considered.

“This experience has opened my eyes to the possibilities that not only I have, but the possibilities and opportunities that my students have,” Ehlert described. “Students can have a hard time seeing the applications of math outside of the classroom, but this opportunity has provided me with concrete examples of how continuing in math and science classes can lead them to opportunities they may not know about! As a teacher, this experience has inspired me to keep exploring the possibilities NASA has to offer—not just for myself, but so I can bring those opportunities back to my students. If I can start a conversation with them about career opportunities they aren’t aware of, I can possibly help them realize an interest of their that they weren’t previously aware of.”

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